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“I GET MORE INTIMATE THAN THEY DO.”

KiKi takes on the weather

14th June 2019
With the moon on the bulge there was lots of light around but soon the little puffs of cloud arrived from the south east. Then more and more. The moon was still holding its own and managing to shine through. But before long the wind had picked up the cloud had moved in and a slight drizzle was putting a real dampner on things. I took cover for the night under a Nyala berry. The weather was here to stay. By dawn I was covered in frass from all the caterpillars in the tree.
Cutting my loses I headed home to be greeted by my precious little monkey…

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Leopard guards his impala kill

13th June 2019
It was already dark when I got back to the area where the leopard had its impala kill. I wasn’t exactly sure where I had it and was scanning the area as I drove. I found the drag marks across the track and shining to the my left saw some strange hairy shapes. 4 Bushpigs, 2 adults and 2 youngsters were busy tucking in to the impala carcass. It was in the open, right where I had left it. How did the vultures no find it? Why hadn’t the leopard taken it into a thicket? Where was the leopard now? The bushpigs had found the carcass perfectly open for them to tuck in to the intestines and meat. Jostling between each other they were clearly relishing all this protein. They must have got my scent, cos as one they bolted and never returned. I got myself into position for the night. I drove a little closer right up against the trunk of a Raintree. Its cover would keep the dew off me. The carcass was about 20m away, my headlights would shine perfectly on it. It was lying in the open on an elephant path running east west. About 5m to the north of the carcass was a low anthill behind which was a big Leadwood with some scrub around it. The moon was bright, already bulging on its way to full. The elephant path went past a dead fallen Raintree, its lightly coloured trunk shining like ivory in this light and its roots, from my position formed the shape of a large X. (No, not extra large…) I was sitting in a grove of Raintrees, their shadows covering me, so making me less obvious, although that’s not so easy when I’ve got Joanie with me. Then I saw him coming along the elephant path just east of the X. It was a young male leopard.
He didn’t go straight to the carcass, but moved around behind me, continued round and approached the carcass from the north, seeming to use the anthill as cover. He seemed unperturbed that the bush pigs had been feeding and soon settled in to feed. He wasn’t tucking into the tender fresh rump, but was taking the intestines and pulling them through his front teeth, so extruding the contents and only eating the meaty covering. He stopped feeding, lions were roaring not far away. Then back to feeding. Eventually he rested up on the anthill grooming himself meticulously. A hyaena called further east and every 8seconds a Scops Owl called from the top of a Leadwood tree not too far away. The lions called again several times in the night. They were moving west but probably not even 500m away. Predawn I was woken by crunching at the carcass. The leopard was feeding again. There was a faint hint of light to the east and Ground Hornbills were thundering their calls somewhere in the dense riverine. It really is such an awesome sound! In the freshly approaching dawn, a pair of jackals, their coats light against the dark background, had just discovered the leopard. They came closer and closer. And then let rip with their ear piercing mobbing calls. The leopard was well fed and moved off with all this interference. (But he hadn’t actually) The jackals never moved in to feed, which was odd. With the light now shining through the trees, I left. Further west, about 500m from the leopard kill, vultures were perched in a tree. Was there another kill here? I stopped to listen AND have a quick pee. Getting back in the car, the vultures all flew off straight towards the leopard kill. I went back round to find them all in a tree close by and lying on the anthill… was the leopard. He had probably been there all day, which had kept them away. AND he was probably lying in the scrub earlier, which was preventing the jackals from coming in.
It was a stalemate and I left, but returned about an hour later to find the vultures still waiting but no leopard and no kill. He’d dragged it about a hundred meters east and stashed it under a very dense Capparis thicket, where no vulture or anything dared venture. It was his for the duration…

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KiKi gets to capture a giraffe

10th June 2019
For the last few days we’ve been following guys from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation https://giraffeconservation.org/ attaching satellite transmitters to 14 giraffe here on Sango. This is no easy task as giraffe being so tall and big are extremely tough to handle.
The operation starts at dawn. The ground crew is mobilised and move into the area where they hope to be catching that day. This is a crew of about 10 hard, fit guys who are trained to do this very operation. They’re armed only with a couple of ropes to take on the worlds tallest mammal. The chopper then takes to the air with a very experienced pilot and riding shotgun with him is the guy who will dart the giraffe from the air. They locate a giraffe that is suitable for their needs of capturing all the necessary data. Swooping low over tree tops they duck and dive after the giraffe which is swerving this way and that. It’s tough flying, not only to stay with the animal but keeping the shooter lined up in a position to get a dart into the giraffe. He might be lined up but the giraffe is now at full gallop, its body moving all the time. Not an easy shot. Bang and the dart hits its target. At the same time the chopper backs off and ascends into the sky. The ground crew are alerted. They’re now racing to get to the exact location. They have 6 to 8minutes to get there before the drug takes full effect. The chopper keeps a visual on the giraffe herding it gently towards any open area in the vicinity. The bush here is fairly open savannah, with lots of low scrub and the odd Acacia or Sickle-bush thicket. The vehicle has visual of the giraffe, which is now running almost in slow motion, the drug is kicking in. They have to get around to the front of the giraffe. She runs through a thicket, the vehicle has to detour. More wasted time. As they round the thicket the giraffe sees them and changes tack. The Land Cruiser is spewing dirt as the wheels gain traction before becoming airborne again, only to come back down to earth with a thud. Those men on the back are hanging on for dear life, putting all their trust in their driver. They manage to pass the giraffe, come to an instant stop. Like a well oiled machine all men erupt off the vehicle chasing after the animal. The 2 sprinters are up front with their rope. One hangs back as the other risking his life, sprints past the front of the giraffe. The rope is now high on the animals chest as the men take up their positions. It’s like a tug-of-war, except the rope isn’t straight, the giraffe now having formed the apex. The men are being dragged along like puppy dogs, but they hold on. They can’t dig in their heels, they have to move around behind the giraffe. The 2 ends of the rope cross. The giraffe becomes tangled and trips over its own legs. All part of the plan. And then she falls, her head falling from way up there hits the grounds with a thud. The rope is immediately forgotten about as all the men dive onto her head and neck. If they can keep her head down she won’t be able to get up. For a brief moment her legs flail in the dust filled air. A blindfold is wrapped around her head and she settles down. Other members of the team arrive. 2 holes are drilled in her ossicone (horn), she struggles briefly but the men on her neck sit tight. The satellite transmitter is attached with 2 bolts. While this is happening a vet is monitoring the giraffe’s pulse and breathing. Others are taking measurements and a DNA sample is taken. All is done. The giraffe has been down less than 8minutes. Everybody moves back leaving a couple of men on the giraffes’ head. The blindfold is removed giving the giraffe a little time to adjust to its surroundings. The 2 men jump back. The giraffe now realising it is free, reels its neck around, gains momentum and in one fluid movement is back on its feet running off wild and free. Another precision operation and another giraffe that will provide invaluable information on the plight of these animals. In this area giraffe populations are doing well, but in other parts of Africa some giraffe species numbers are declining dramatically. Hopefully the information gained from these satellite transmitters will help in gaining a better understanding of giraffe biology and what is necessary to make sure we save all those we can.
Obviously for KiKi it was her first giraffe capture and her favourite toy is Gerry. She was clearly loving the experience feeling a real giraffe mommy. One very happy, and lucky little KiK’s.

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KiKi gets to see her first lion

06th June 2019
How surreal. I was in camp last night and up before 3 am going through the edit on my current hyaena film. Of course I was deep in my sleeping bag sitting at my desk watching footage of hyaenas and lions, when real lions roared on the track passing camp. I removed the headphones to be sure it wasn’t coming from my screen. Tempted as I was to follow I also had to get this other work done. AND it was warmer staying in my sleeping bag. The night had gone quiet. Other lions roared quite a way north and I expected ‘my’ lions to respond. It stayed quiet for a while and then I heard the screams. Those unmistakable screams of a zebra in distress. It was like a high pitched drawn out scream and then quiet. Several baboons alarmed on hearing the zebra in distress. Then another brief scream. Out of my sleeping bag I boarded Joanie, jumping into another sleeping bag. I knew it wasn’t far to go. I crossed the track past our camp driving into the short Umbrella-thorn Acacias. At times thickets of them blocked my path but it was easy enough to go around them. A jackal ran off to the south. I stopped to listen. There was growling, squabbling over a carcass to my west. More jackals, then I found the lions. 8 of them feeding on a young zebra. Although with lions it can’t really be called feeding as the fighting is intense and at times the smaller and younger animals go hungry. The adult male seemed convinced I was about to steal his dinner. He stared me down, his tail swishing crazily from side to side growling his obscenities at me. Realising the others were feeding away frantically while he was preoccupied with me, he soon resumed to his feast. I left the real lions to return to the ones on my computer screen. So surreal.
KiKi was awake at dawn. Saskia bundled her into piles of clothes and we bundled into sleeping bags back in search of the lions. These would be KiKi’s first lions! She had her own little toy lion Leo and knew what sound he was supposed to make, but now it was for real. Saskia was driving and KiKi was with me deep in my sleeping bag riding on the camera box. It was now light, which takes the guessing game out of things one can’t see in the dark. For the lions it seemed to mean the same thing. They had lost their courage of the dark and as we approached, bolted, one of the young males leaving with the remains of the carcass. KiKi was unimpressed trying to see what we were getting so excited about as the lions disappeared into the savannah. She was more impressed with all the jackal rushing around picking up scraps. We tried to follow after the lions but they weren’t having any of it.
Already loaded with our tea basket we headed east along the boundary. There wasn’t much to see along the straight road in mopane country. Saskia brings KiKi out here most mornings. We got to the mounds of sand, the wild dog den. No sign of anybody, but they had left their ‘calling cards’ all over the place. We continued on east and there in the distance were shapes running towards us. The dogs were on their way back from the hunt. They always seem to be competing with each other to see who can get home first to feed the mother and pups. We stopped as one by one they came running towards us, ducked into the bush for a few meters and then back on the track behind us racing for home. We raced after them getting to the den when the screaming started. The alpha female, when begging for food makes this screaming high pitched sound as she gets the adults to regurgitate food for her. Still no sign of the puppies. They must be at least a couple of weeks old now so will soon be out. Not even 5minutes after the packs’ arrival at the den and all was quiet and still again. The alpha female well fed and the rest of the pack resting after a successful hunt. It was tea time…

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Lions hunting in riverine forest

5th June 2019
I know just a presence and me driving around the area that I plan to work, all help getting the animals to accept Joanie and me. So a lot of my nights are spent doing just that and at the same time looking for potential action or just potential animals that I can follow to help them realise I mean no harm.
Driving through the riverineI I wasn’t expecting to see their tawny shapes. A lion and 2 lionesses were dwarfed by the huge trees. He was hanging back as the girls moved to my right with purpose. I couldn’t see what had caught their interest. But their gaze didn’t last and the 2 girls rested up under a grove of Nyala-berry trees. I didn’t join them as there was a veil of webs hanging from the trees like puppets on a string, caterpillars descending on their webs to the ground as they headed off to pupate. These caterpillars are pretty harmless but piles of them would know doubt get squashed in my moving around the car and I wasn’t too looking forward to a green lotion on my skin or sleeping bag. The male lion had plonked himself down just where he was when the girls did. About 50m east of them a small pair of eyes was watching the goings on, a genet perched in the fork of a Leadwood tree. Some impala roared to the south. The girls were up heading slowly south. There was baboon chatter in the direction of the impala. They hadn’t seen the lions, but the lions were sure to have their cover blown if they continued and wisely turned back and headed north.

They were moving thorough the huge open woodland of Nyala-berry’s, Leadwoods, Raintrees, Umbrella thorns and Sausage trees. All majestic trees in their own right. There was no cover on the ground and very little leaf litter. The lions could move freely and quietly all spread out. A few Croton bushes and some small Acacias provided them with little cover. A pair of eyes ahead coming towards us. The lions hadn’t seen it. A female leopard was walking straight towards me. Lions and leopard hadn’t seen each other. About 30m apart the leopard saw the lions. You could almost see her eyes widening in shock at what was beaming down on her. She drew her body close to the ground, almost flat and slunk off to the side. She didn’t run away. She wanted to see these brutes pass her by, which they did completely unaware of her presence. Once they’d past she moved on south. 
Plenty of eyes ahead. A herd of impala. We were still in big tree country, fairly open but with scattered bushes. Enough cover for the lions. They were on it. Keeping themselves spread out, they approached. There wasn’t much effort to conceal themselves and try as they did to lower their body’s to the ground, they were no match at mastering the act like the leopard did. There was no tactic in the lions’ hunt. About 30m from their prey they all attacked running blindly into the herd. Their ‘tactic’, if you could call it that, was to cause chaos and have impala running everywhere. If one ran over you, you grabbed it. I lost the lions in the advance. If they had caught an impala there was bound to be lots of growling and fighting over the small carcass. I waited listening. The impala were quiet. Somewhere down there a pair of Giant-eagle Owls were hoot-grunting to each other. It sounded like an interesting conversation. Twenty minutes later and there still wasn’t a peep from the lions. I drove around, but couldn’t find them.

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Shy Leopard Cub

1st June 2019
Normally when I’m driving around at 4h30 in the morning, I’m already in my main filming area and driving really slowly, 2nd gear at the most. But leaving home this morning at that time and travelling in 3rd gear the wind-chill took on a whole new meaning. I was deep in my sleeping bag wearing a heavy jacket and scarf, no hat and no gloves. My face was fine but after 15mins my hands felt like someone was trying to pull my nails out with a pair of pliers. I stopped near a pan to sit on my hands and warm them. A lion roared in the direction I’d come from and straight after it another roared not far ahead of me. It was fairly open country and seemed a definite I’d find the lion. But alas it melted away somewhere into the darkness. Aaaah… I carried on until my hands needed warming again. I was down in the riverine vegetation. After about 5mins my hands were toasty warm and ready for another stint. A leopard called to my south. It sounded close but again I had no luck. There were several jackals going crazy mobbing something a long way north. I had to give it a bash. They were going so frantic when I was nearing the area I didn’t need to switch the engine off to hear them. Carrying on north off the road across country, fairly open savannah, I saw several jackals ahead. One ran off but the other 5 stayed, some shouting the others moving around. I couldn’t pin-point where the trouble was. There was no sign of any other eyes in the area. I drove around. Another 2 jackals were to the east AND a hyaena! Sadly the hyaena bolted when I put the light on it and I never saw it again. Then I found the remains of an adult male impala carcass. Most of it had been eaten, with just skin and bones remaining. It was lying out in the open. Was this a cheetah or wild dog kill? About 50m away was a huge fallen over dead tree, a Nyala-berry. I positioned Joanie behind it so she wouldn’t be too obvious and intimidating. The jackals were soon back, but reluctant to feed. Then they started their chorus shouting frantically. It was only just getting light and I couldn’t see much. There’s no grass here but the forbe Sida, sure makes up for it, completely obscuring the carcass from where I was. The jackal carried on frantically. Using my binoculars I could see something at the carcass. It was a young leopard. I drove a little closer, right up to the tree stump. She carried on feeding. She was completely unconcerned by the jackal. After shouting frantically for a good 10 minutes, they all turned and left without a second thought and never came back. I stayed with the leopard waiting for sunrise and some decent light to get a couple of pics. Visitors arrived, not to hassle the leopard but to hassle me. In the Knob-thorn tree next to me, first a pair of White-crowned Shrikes shouted their abuses. They were soon joined by a pair of Yellow-billed Hornbills and then a noisy scattering of Long-tailed Starlings. A Buffalo-weaver nesting in the tree was the only candidate who might have had a slight reason to carry on with tormenting me.  And not to miss out on making fun of me a Black-headed Oriole came and sat at the very top of the tree. For ages they pestered me, then briefly checked out the leopard and left. Why was I being treated with such disdain?
The sun came up, but of course there had to be a tree casting its shadow over the leopard. The leopard tried moving the carcass but it was too much for her little body. Eventually, reluctant to leave, she walked towards me a few steps then moved on east. She seemed so chilled. When she was a good 50m away I tried to follow, but just starting the engine had her bolting for the trees…

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Wild Dogs denning surprise

30th May 2019
Exciting stuff!
Well for me it certainly was. I’d been driving after sunset. The tracks were dry and powdery kicking up piles of dust behind me as I slowly made my along the edge of the riverine vegetation. My spotlight was drifting from side to side in what’s almost become a mechanical movement for me. I scan quite quickly, not looking for actual shapes in the dark but relying totally on animals eyes lighting up and reflecting back to me. A city of lights ahead, a herd of impala, the females all being herded by a single male. The rut is still on but very much coming to an end now. A pair of eyes close together in the top of an Umbrella-thorn. A Genet foraging. Dust up ahead, a herd of wildebeest running into the mopane. Out on the plains like little jewels scattered in the dust, Nightjars. I then took refuge under a Nyala-berry, keeping away from the dew. Tea and a sandwich went down well. Not my traditional meal, which is usually an ice-cold smoothy. Yes even in winter, but today the tea scored huge points and might just be a replacement for a while.
A lion called a long way north. Something to follow up on. I flicked the switch and pressed the button (Joanie threw her key away some time ago) and Joanie fired up. Lights on, spotlight in the hand and I left the shelter of the tree. I’d hardly left when scanning to my right, not too far away was one of my best friends, a hyaena! It looked like a young female. The first one I’ve seen here. Expecting her to bolt I took the main beam off her. She stared at me for a while and then nonchalantly she walked away behind some bushes. She didn’t like me driving after her and loped off into the darkness. I was sooooo chuffed. I love these creatures and she was a lot more chilled than I expected. Her reaction being far better than the lions.
For the rest of the night I was chasing calling lions. At one stage I had 3 lions calling at the same time, all in a different direction from me. Whenever I was just about on top of one of them, they’d go silent.
Frustrated I followed the dawn in with a little fire and a hot cup of tea!
I’ve decided I’m going to spend some time working all day rather than at night. I can spend more time walking and in this cooler weather badgers will be active in the early morning and late afternoon.
So because of this change in shift, I got home and took the family out all afternoon. KiKi was riding shotgun holding onto my tripod arm, Saskia sitting next to me. We took a route new to both of us along the northern boundary. We crossed the sandy river, which up here is still flowing. This is also the only area in the river that reeds are growing, which is strange. Maybe they occur upstream but for the more than 20kms that the river flows through the reserve till where it ends in the Save River, there aren’t any reeds. I love it that way as they can eventually choke a river. The road across the northern side was straight, fairly level stony country with dense bush on both sides. The stony soils gave way to red sandy soils and we now had mopane woodland surrounding us. The sun was fairly low in the sky and shining under the woodland canopy casting pretty light below. There was no marker or change in anything, except one area close to the road the ground had been excavated into 5 or 6 mounds of sand at the base of which each had a hole. Then the colours erupted. We’d woken them. Blacks, whites and browns all mixed in different ratios and patterns, the amazing variety of coats, each African Wild Dog with their very own print. Awake, the dogs all greeted briefly before settling again. They were pretty chilled with our presence, which as brilliant. AND they’re obviously denning. I presume the puppies are still very young and not yet venturing out the den. Unfortunately the mopane they’re denning in is really dense and once they leave to go hunting there is no way of following them, but at least in time, IF they stay there, we’ll be able to see a lot more of them.
It was getting late, the sun was setting, and KiKi was a little grumpy. It was her bath time.
I was on a high. 2 of my besties on one day!
(Look out for my film that premiered in November last year “DOGS IN THE LAND OF LIONS” on PBS in America, and also on other channels around the world.)

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Tribute to my mother

28th May 2019
For the many years that I’ve had her, she’s never had a name, which is so wrong when I think how she has stood by me in the toughest of times, she’s been incredibly reliable and she’s as hard as they come. I could have chosen an animal or a local tribal name, but the person my filming car most aptly represents is my mother.
Life was hard on mum but she never complained.
Mum grew up in White River going to school at Fullers, which became Uplands, where I too attended school followed by my daughters. For high school, she attended Rodean in Johannesburg. This involved a 24hr train trip to get there and she only returned home at the end of the term, so didn’t see her parents for months at a time.
Her dad, Clem Merriman (he was one of the first settlers in White River and later brought out a number of retired English military men to join him) died when mom was in her late 30’s.
Living in close proximity to the Kruger National Park it didn’t take long for her to meet my dad. They married and soon had 3 sons. I mean soon. 3 boys in 18months. My older brother and then us twins. Yes I have a twin brother. Pregnant with us mum was having complications and on the verge of death when they performed an emergency C-section. We survived, obviously, and yet again mum pulled through.
Dad died when I was 5yrs old. Mom had to raise 3 little boys on her own. She had nothing and was given 1month in which to leave the Kruger National Park. We moved to White River where we attended Uplands Preparatory School.
In our time in White River mum worked but only half days, always making sure to have time for us. In the little spare time she had, she would make a point of visiting the lonely old folks in town. People who had been friends of her parents. Of course the 3 little boys were always in tow and mum made sure our behaviour and manners were impeccable.
When I was 10, mum decided to send us to St. Johns Preparatory School and then to the College, where dad had attended school.
She always made a point of giving us the best education even though it meant giving up everything for us to be able to do so. In our holidays she would take us back to Kruger to make sure we never lost our love of the bush.
We finished school and she was hit with another really tough stint. She sat at home alone as her 3 boys, her everything in life, went off to the army to do their National Service. We were fighting guerrillas on the Namibian border with Angola. It couldn’t have got any more stressful for her knowing her boys were in the line of fire. Having been in the South African Navy herself, she fully understood what we were up against and what she was in for.
After my 2 years National Service, all I wanted was to go and live with the bushmen. Mum would have none of it and sent me off to University to get a degree.
Of course you didn’t challenge mum, she was tough and had to be with us 3. At times she was hard but always with reason.
She was kind, generous to others, never had eyes for another man and continued to follow in conservation having served as the secretary of the South African Ornithological Society for 12 years before going on to work at the Endangered Wildlife Trust till her retirement.
She was meticulous, punctual and never tired.
Her last 5years were miserable living with Alzheimers and she died at 85.
I thought it then fitting that my 31year old Toyota that has stood by me all these years should be named after my mother. I have spent over 35,000hrs behind the wheel of this machine. Nobody or nothing else has spent so much time with me, except my mother.
So I’ve decided to call her JOANIE.

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